EDMONTON – Even when Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Steven Jyles sits by himself in his dressing room cubicle, the memory of Ricky Ray is over his head — literally.
Above the bench and hooks is a plate with Jyles’ name and number. Above that is a tiny plaque that reads “Ricky Ray 2002-2011.” It reminds players that this is where the team’s career passing leader sat before being dealt to the Toronto Argonauts for Jyles in a package deal last December.
On Saturday, Jyles has his coming out party against Ray and those same Argos at Commonwealth Stadium in the opening weekend of the 2012 CFL season.
It will be the culmination of six years of hard work and broken dreams for Jyles, the 29-year-old from Baton Rouge, La.. For six years he has stood on the sidelines with a clipboard and hit the field only when someone else got hurt or played poorly.
When the Eskimos traded for him, it was a signal that Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman believed Jyles was ready for prime time. It was Steven’s turn, his moment in the sun.
But as Jyles stood this week in front of Ray’s old locker, almost every media question that came at him was about someone else. Yes, he said, he’s replacing a legend.
“Ricky Ray’s a great guy. A future Hall of Famer in my eyes,” said Jyles.
No, he won’t by overwhelmed by the grandeur of Ricky’s Return.
“It’s just another ball game for us.”
His voice was emotionless, his mood that of a dental patient — polite but determined to get it over with.
Jyles is no stranger to skepticism but it reached new heights following the trade that brought him back to the Alberta capital.
He played with Edmonton for two seasons when he began his CFL career in 2006, and couldn’t get off the sidelines. Jyles was dismissed as all arm, no football sense.
Since then, he has shone in spot duty with Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, and Toronto, known for his fast feet, a cannon arm and game-breaking potential.
Still, Ricky Ray for Steven Jyles?
Local bloggers, fans, and some columnists have labelled it Tillman’s Folly, and everyone has an opinion.
It’s Eric being penny wise and pound foolish by dumping an irreplaceable cog to free up salary cap space, say some.
No, it’s Eric indulging his ego by trying to prove he can build a champion with parts he alone picked out, say others.
Or maybe Eric just plain got snookered?
Steven Jyles was born in tiny Independence, La., on Sept. 25, 1982, but raised in Baton Rouge.
He was a football star in high school and went on to rack up numerous passing records for the University of Louisiana-Monroe Indians from 2002 to 2005. They are now known as the less-offensive Warhawks.
“I was the last Indian,” Jyles said with a laugh.
Growing up, he cheered for the inconsistent New Orleans Saints and marvelled at the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, but modelled his game after Brett Favre, a fellow Southerner then turning the NFL on its head as quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.
Favre, a riverboat gambler with ice in his veins, could throw off his back foot, on the run, in the pocket, into triple coverage and succeed. After a big TD throw, sometimes he would race down the field to hug his receiver.
“He had fun and when I watched him play I’m like, ‘Man, that’s how I like to have fun playing the game,”" said Jyles.
“He was a true gunslinger.”
Has Favre’s game found its way into Jyles’ style? A little bit.
“Favre was great at what I call it chucking and ducking,” said Jyles.
Watch Favre on film, he said, and you will see him hold the ball an extra second to allow a receiver on a deep route to get free, even though it gives a monster lineman the chance to drill Favre once the throw is made.
Favre could throw the ball and lean away from the hit in one fluid motion, said Jyles.
“He wouldn’t even see the ball go up,” Jyles said. “He would throw it and spin and it would be a perfect pass.
“I do that to this day. Give a guy a chance. Chuck and duck.”
Eskimos receiver Greg Carr, who also played with Jyles in Winnipeg, said they see Jyles taking those hits and get inspired.
Carr said Jyles’ speed gives the Eskimos the extra offensive dimension they need. It’s one that wasn’t there with Ray.
Jyles can change the game with his feet or improvise a new play out of a broken one, said Carr.
“With him no play is dead.”
Eskimos linebacker T.J. Hill said that against Jyles, defensive linemen must diligently honour the gaps or risk him breaking free for big yardage. Linebackers walk a fine line, he said.
Over-commit and Jyles runs past you. Drop off too deep and he torches you with the underneath throws.
Hill compared Jyles to an earlier version of star B.C. Lions quarterback Travis Lulay.
“Steven has that potential. He has the qualifications,” said Hill.
Jyles admits when he first came to the CFL he was lost.
Looking over the line of scrimmage in the U.S. game there were 11 guys on a smaller field, all in his line of vision. In Canada, there were 12 guys spread out from coast to coast to coast. He had to turn his head under centre just to see everyone.
And what was the deal with just three downs?
“Coming from the U.S., to me first down was waste down,” he said.
Consequently, every drive would start with Slingin’ Steve chucking it deep and usually missing. On second down, the defence would blitz and make him dump the ball on a hot read for a drive-killing five yards.
“When you learn how to manage the game, you’ll be an awesome quarterback,” Jyles remembers then-Eskimos coach Danny Maciocia telling him.
“I didn’t know what that meant at the time.”
Now he does.
To learn it, the man with the degree in construction management drew on the lessons of his childhood, when he and brother Paul would help their dad, Ronnie, renovate homes in Baton Rouge.
Every Saturday, they’d head out in Dad’s truck, fixing doors, building cabinets, laying tile.
Jyles was asked if he had a home renovation “uh-oh” moment. The time, he said, when Dad left him to fit and install an expensive screen door.
He turned the door into a gate.
“I’m a perfectionist,” said Jyles. “I measured this door five times before I cut it. And I cut the door, and it ended up being short at one end. It was a big gap.”
When Dad returned, they managed to jerry-rig a solution.
As in football, they took what the situation gave them and adapted.
“I’m still a perfectionist,” said Jyles. “(But) that’s the part of my game I had to learn.
“Once I understood when to take shots and how to take what the defence gives you and just move the ball, I was pretty good as a quarterback.
“Now it’s putting it all together as a starter.”